Crossing the Border

The crisis at our border is complex. Our immigration system is broken. It’s been broken for a long time. When I served on the immigrant justice task force for the Unitarian Universalist justice ministry of California, our primary goal was to stop deportations that separated families. I already knew that unauthorized entry into this country is a misdemeanor offense similar to trespass. I already knew that it is not illegal to make an asylum claim.

 I had seen the conditions in Tijuana where deportees are dumped without help from either government. I had met a deported veteran who started a support house for other deported veterans. About nine years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association developed a curriculum about the complicated mess that is our immigration system. I sat through it in two different congregations that I served.

 I thought I knew what to expect. I thought I knew what to expect when I headed towards the border for a brief trip to be educated and to provide witness. It’s been five years since I’ve been to the border. It is nine years since our association chose to study immigration as a moral issue. A lot has changed.  

The current administration’s zero tolerance policy means that federal criminal courts on the border are overwhelmed. In the past when people presented themselves to make an asylum claim, border law enforcement did not press charges since the migrant would ultimately end up in immigration court. Under zero-tolerance, the misdemeanor unlawful entry must now be prosecuted in criminal court where U.S. due process requirements apply.  

It’s complex. It’s also fairly easy to start unraveling some of the complication through listening to the stories of the people on the front lines of this humanitarian crisis. Listen to the lawyers who offer their services for free.  

Listen to the lawyers who point out that when the U.S. Attorney General decides a case that effectively takes away special protection for women experiencing gender violence, that it will take five to seven years to appeal the decision. In the meanwhile, abused women have lost their protected status. 

Listen to the ACLU advocate who has watched the situation change from twenty years ago when it was mostly men who would cross the border to roof in Dallas for six months. They wouldn’t be stopped. Now it is families. Now it is people who have experienced trauma that the ACLU advocate says he doesn’t have the vocabulary for. People have experienced trauma for which he does not have the vocabulary.  

If migrants feel they can no longer wait at an official port of entry, they hire a coyote who takes them across the river. Or they try to cross the river themselves. That’s what happened in June to a man and his young daughter when they both drowned in the river.

If an asylum seeker is lucky enough to get across the river they then go directly to the wall and wait. They sit and wait to be picked up. It’s safer to be in the system. It’s safer to be in the broken system.

Our broken immigration system is complicated. Listen to the lawyers. Listen to the humanitarian workers. Listen to the stories of those who sit and wait.

 Friday afternoon, about eighty clergy crossed the border into Matamoros, walked across the road and listened to the stories of those who sit and wait. We went in groups of seven or eight, led by Spanish speakers. As our group made its way into the edge of what we were told would be about 500 people waiting, a man approached me asking if some of the pastores would come and visit their encampment. I speak enough Spanish to tell him that I would get our leader who is a better translator than I am. 

A common thread ran through the stories we heard. There were several stories of a young daughter being at school for the day and a gang member making a visit to the parent informing them they knew where their child was and if they didn’t pay a particular price that they would never see their child again. Most left immediately, riding on buses and trucks or walking to Mexico. Most had been in Mexico for several months making their way towards the border. They had been at the border for one or two months, sleeping in small tents provided by aid organizations. Someone usually brings water – two bottles per person per day. Sometimes there is food. The children and women eat first.  

We listened to a man who said that people don’t believe them. He said, “The immigrant agents don’t believe our stories. I’m not in a gang,” he said. He lifted up his shirt for us like he did with the agent, showing the absence of tattoos. In the awkward pause that followed, I asked Ezequiel (our translator) to tell him that we believe him. That we would carry his story with us to people who would believe him.  

As we were leaving, the man who had come to me at the beginning of our time there, was having a private conversation with Ezequiel. When Ezequiel and I took the short walk towards the entry point, passing by the long line because we are all US citizens, Ezequiel told me some of the man’s story. He is from Honduras. Most of his family have been killed. He can’t go back. So he sits and waits.  

I know Honduras. I spent four weeks there as a teenager, vaccinating children against tuberculosis with an organization called Amigos de las Americas. The man’s face is a face I saw hundreds of times in Honduras. The proud, chiseled face of the indigenous population. The Mayan face that is distinct from the face of the conqueror – the ones who are still in charge centuries later. Different from the face of the landowners, the ones with the power. Different from the faces of the very few in that country who have access to security, whether it be political, material, or psychological. The abject poverty I witnessed in 1976 hasn’t changed. The access to security and safety has.  

Dramatically so. 

African American activist Brittany Packnett spoke to Unitarian Universalists in 2018 at our annual General Assembly, reminding us that not everyone can expect safety and security in the same way. Not everyone can expect more, expect better, expect something to honor their humanity. That there are some among us who are “silly to even have the thought. To ever dream of equity, of freedom, of inclusion.” 

She calls us all in to “the divine union of love and power.” Love without power is vapid and sentimental. Power without love is uncaring and abusive. She calls us all in to shift the spirit of expectancy for our neighbor who desperately wants us to believe their story, who desperately wants to believe us when we arrive at the border hoping to serve rather than to save. Knowing that what affects one affects us all, that our fates are bound up with each other.

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Lora Brandis